It’s sometime in the late 2010s, Los Angeles, Calif., and then-professional dancer Skyh Black is auditioning for a hip-hop part. Maybe it’s for Rihanna, Beyoncé, or Mariah — he’s worked with them all despite a complete lack of training in the genre. Casting the part is Grey’s Anatomy executive producer Debbie Allen, a former dancer herself, and after she selects Black for the job, she pulls him aside. “She says, ‘Honey, I’m going to make you an actor. That’s what I see of you,’” Black, from his home in L.A., tells The Manual.
“I said, ‘No, you’re not,’” the 33-year-old continues. “‘That’s not me.’”
On September 9, Tyler Perry Studios’ All the Queen’s Men debuted on BET+, and in it, Black, fully transitioned into the actor Allen foresaw, plays Addition Anthony, a stripper with a mysterious past. (In our conversation, Black was tight-lipped on spoilers, so you’ll have to watch for yourself.) The role is only his most recent: Appearing in BET’s Sistas, Showtime’s Black Monday, and the upcoming AMC legal drama Lace, it’s fair to say that Black, onetime dancer who told a multi-Emmy-award-winner that she was wrong, has found his rhythm.
Back then, Black couldn’t comprehend leaving dancing behind. It was the one thing he’d always done. Raised by his Alabamian grandparents in Miami, Fl., he had been a dancer, he says, longer than he could remember, breaking his leg at age two after a failed attempt in the kitchen to recreate the lighted tile scene from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” When he was old enough, his grandparents enrolled him in classes, intending he study tap — grandma was a Gregory Hines fan. But only ballet was available, which is not exactly going to get you a letterman jacket. And still, he flourished. Years later, at a performing arts high school, his instructor all but told him he’d never make it into the ranks of the pros — he didn’t have the right proportions, the inherent flexibility, or the requisite whiteness (no small irony, as the instructor himself was a Black man). “That is the wrong thing to tell me,” Black says. “Anything in life, if you tell me ‘no,’ good luck, because you just made me successful at it.” Sure enough, two years later, Black was in New York, employed as a professional ballet dancer.
Despite all this, when Allen prophesied over him, Black was the uncharacteristic Doubting Thomas: “I never knew I was going to be an actor,” he says. And then he says it again, in emphasis. “I always thought it was the hardest discipline to do.”
Whether Black thought of it at the time, he was in the same pipeline as many other dancers-cum-leading-men. A brief history: Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire. “Sammy Davis Jr., as well,” Black adds as we riff back and forth. For modern examples, look no further than Channing Tatum, who was shaking it in Ricky Martin’s She Bangs music video and others well before stealing the screen in Step Up, Magic Mike, and Hail, Caesar!. Hell, Oscar-bait La La Land is essentially a self-referential acknowledgment of Hollywood’s footloose past.
Could Allen somehow see into the soft-focus future, in which Black would score role after role? Or was it a gut instinct, seeing a bit of herself in Black? (Allen, coming off her Governors Award at the 2021 Emmys, did not respond for comment.) Maybe she just saw a young man who had the drive to valet-park cars from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., sleep through the mornings, and audition in the afternoons like a West Coast vampire.
Regardless of who knew what, when, one thing is certain: Allen, after absorbing Black’s outright rejection, was undeterred. “That’s not me,” he said, and Allen fired back: “Honey, you don’t know who the hell you are yet.”
So who is Skyh Black?
In 2021, Black is a man of faith, though he doesn’t ascribe to any specific denomination or creed. Try to pin him down, and he’ll get as specific as saying, “What was more paramount than religion and the rules [is] a strong individual relationship with God.” Rather than cathedrals or pews, he hikes on numerous Los Angeles trails, where he talks with the Divine like they’re old friends.
Black is a man of the classics, of tradition, despite the fact that he lives in a fully modern world. “When you learn the classicism of any craft, you can easily transfer into other areas of that same discipline,” he says. He’s taken acting classes, sure, but one of his greatest strengths as an actor comes from his spatial awareness and ultimate control over his body learned in ballet and on the stage. It goes without saying that when it comes to blocking, he always hits his mark.
And Black, despite his newcomer status (he was still valet-parking and living his nocturnal lifestyle as recently as last year), has not yet come down with imposter syndrome. “Sometimes, as an actor, you can get into this chasing-your-own-momentum thing. You’re in this competition with yourself,” he says. “But that is something I am learning to let go. I feel like I’m living in my purpose.”
It doesn’t hurt that one of his guiding lights has been the Tyler Perry Method, a phrase we’ve just coined but one known intimately by its devotees. The director is legendary for shooting fast and intense, and for a man like Black just cutting his teeth, a Perry project is akin to Marine Corps boot camp. Even Black, to describe its rigors, resorts to militaristic verbiage: “I always say, if you’re able to be successful in Tyler Perry land, you can do anything, anywhere. I love the training ground he provides.”
April 23, 2020: It’s the date Black was notified he’d landed his role in Sistas, and one which he remembers because it was two years to the date that he’d walked back into acting class. Allen’s prediction has come true. “My life completely changed,” he says.
While Black doesn’t mention if he’s seen Allen again or even had the chance to thank her, he’s unabashedly forthcoming about her impact. “She opened up this world where my imagination became limitless, she opened up this world to where I felt like I can escape, and she opened up this world that forces you to have empathy for other people even if you don’t agree,” he says. “[Acting] has become the biggest obsession of my life.”
But who Skyh Black is now, however, could only be possible because of what he once was. “If I did not have my previous life as a dancer, the discipline, knowing the camera,” he says. The implication is clear: Who he is now is who he has always been. “It all worked in tandem,” he says, “and it was completely necessary for who I am today.”